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Richard Bissell
Richard Bissell in Berlin. He played a key role in early American space policy by promulgating the concept of “freedom of space”, essential for satellite reconnaissance. (credit: CIA)

Tinker, tailor, satellite, spy

<< page 1: historiography and history

The man behind the curtain

In 2002 the CIA released several new documents that have now reopened the subject to renewed scrutiny. Those documents were released as part of the CIA Records Electronic Search Tool (CREST) at the National Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland, a Washington, DC suburb. The CREST collection is contained on several computers at the Archives II library. Those computers contain hundreds of thousands of electronically scanned documents. Every year, sometime after October first (the beginning of the new fiscal year), as part of a major agency declassification program, the CIA adds more documents to the collection. The number of documents released each year has been decreasing substantially since a high point early this decade, and numerous subjects, such as covert action and “operational” files (however vaguely defined) are exempt from release. Furthermore, in spring 2006 several researchers exposed that the intelligence community was secretly reclassifying documents that had previously been publicly released and had in fact removed documents from the CREST collection. Nevertheless, the collection is a highly significant archive of documents particularly on US technical collection systems such as satellites, as well as intelligence analysis of numerous Soviet subjects during the 1940s thru 1980s, with the bulk of the documentation dating from the 1950s and 1960s.

The two most interesting documents pertaining to the freedom of space history were written by Richard Bissell in fall of 1954 and demonstrate that Bissell, and not the civilian scientific advisors of the Technological Capabilities Panel nor other senior Eisenhower advisors, developed the concept of freedom of space. Although Bissell’s name has been deleted from the documents, his title remains on several of them, and they were contained in an electronic folder that contained other documents that clearly indicated that the papers were from Bissell’s office files. (I’d just like to reiterate that when I discovered these documents they were a surprise. I was not looking for them and never suspected that they existed.)

But at some point Bissell must have made the connection between the high-flying aircraft and the higher-flying satellite and asked an insightful question: at what altitude did an object cease to violate sovereign territory?

After working on subjects such as the Guatemalan coup, in fall of 1954 Bissell turned his attentions to aerial reconnaissance issues. What exactly prompted him to do so remains unclear, but there were two major highly classified reconnaissance proposals that circulated through senior intelligence channels that year. One was the RAND FEED BACK study that explored the possible intelligence data that a nuclear-powered satellite equipped with a television camera could return from low Earth orbit. The other was a privately funded proposal from the Lockheed Corporation for a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft designated the CL-282. The Lockheed proposal had been developed by aircraft designer Kelly Johnson in response to an Air Force program known as Bald Eagle. Lockheed’s proposal had been rejected by the Air Force because the plane was too flimsy by military standards, but that did not stop Johnson, who pitched his project to the CIA. Bissell had a junior Air Force officer on his staff summarize the airplane program in a memo that he sent up the chain of command.

Bissell recognized what a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft could do. It could open up vast areas of Soviet territory that the United States knew nothing about and would be invulnerable to attack, and possibly even immune to detection. But he obviously must have realized that such an aircraft, flying at greater than 20,000 meters over the Soviet Union, would be a gross violation of national sovereignty. The Soviets would want to shoot it down, and would be fully justified doing so under international law.

Bissell was also aware of the proposal by civilian scientists to orbit an American scientific satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year. But at some point he must have made the connection between the high-flying aircraft and the higher-flying satellite and asked an insightful question: at what altitude did an object cease to violate sovereign territory? Did national sovereignty extend out beyond the atmosphere, into space, into infinity? Because a satellite in orbit would stay up under its own power—most unlike an airplane—perhaps one could argue that Earth orbit was not “airspace” (after all, there was no air) and was therefore international territory, like the open ocean. At some point Bissell took this thought experiment one step further and reasoned that a civilian scientific satellite could be used to establish the precedent that space was neutral territory. Fly a civilian satellite over the Soviet Union and eventually fly a military satellite and make the argument that both were in neutral territory.

Bissell then wrote a memo to his boss, Allen Dulles. “Because the satellite will be the greatest scientific advancement since the hydrogen bomb, the United States should do everything possible to gain the prestige of this achievement,” Bissell wrote. “The first satellite should be launched in a peaceful setting not only to provide the greatest psychological warfare potential but also to facilitate the launching of future, more elaborate satellites.” Then he added, “The International Geophysical Year, 1957–1958, offers a unique opportunity. It would provide the United States with maximum favorable publicity, an international setting, worldwide scientific cooperation, a clearly established peaceful motive, and a reaffirmation of Free World scientific values and methods.”

“Because the satellite will be the greatest scientific advancement since the hydrogen bomb, the United States should do everything possible to gain the prestige of this achievement,” Bissell wrote.

Bissell followed this with a draft of a memo for Dulles to send to President Eisenhower dated September 24, 1954. “In order to retain the initiative in the Earth Satellite Vehicle field and yet avoid any military stigma, it would be of great psychological and political advantage for the U.S. to launch a first Earth Satellite Vehicle in a peaceful setting which stressed the scientific research aspects of the development. This would also set an international precedent that would make it easier for the U.S. to conduct future Earth Satellite Vehicle launchings.”

These documents establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that Bissell initiated the U.S. government effort to sponsor a civilian satellite program as part of the IGY. They push back the date of the first known mention of this subject by four and a half months, from February 1955 to September 1954, and they demonstrate that the idea originated with Bissell in the CIA and not the civilian scientists of the Technological Capabilities Panel.

No other documents on this subject have emerged in the past several years, and they may not exist. For now we are left to fill in the blanks. Clearly Bissell’s draft memo from Dulles to Eisenhower was never sent. Most likely Bissell, or Dulles, or both men decided that the ongoing TCP group should be made aware of this proposal and should adopt it as their own. Perhaps they believed that it would have greater weight coming from the civilian scientists, or maybe they decided that it would be better to erase the CIA’s fingerprints from the idea.

Soon after writing these documents Dulles obtained Eisenhower’s approval for the CIA to develop the high-flying reconnaissance aircraft, which was renamed the U-2. Dulles placed Bissell in charge of managing the effort and Bissell soon began acquiring assets and power within the CIA. By mid-1955 the U-2 was flying, and by mid-1956 it was flying over the Soviet Union. The Soviets detected it immediately, but rather than reveal to the world that they were powerless to defend against it, they filed their protests in secret and frantically worked on methods to shoot it down. By October 1957 they launched Sputnik and essentially codified the American freedom of space policy themselves. Of course, they still protested American military spacecraft that eventually overflew their territory, but this was primarily bluster, and the Soviet leadership recognized that they had forfeited the right to shoot down American satellites as they eventually shot down the U-2.

We have learned once again that documents can emerge even from the early days of the American space program that shed new light on existing historical interpretations. Who knows what further surprises may lurk in classified archives?

Bissell’s success at developing the U-2 made him legendary within the intelligence community. In spring 1958 Eisenhower directed that the CIA develop the Corona reconnaissance satellite in the same manner that it had developed the U-2. Bissell ran that program very effectively as well. The whole time he was building up his power within the agency and acquiring authority over various “special projects,” including covert action. In 1960 he proposed a covert operation against the Castro regime in Cuba and convinced his superiors to support it. When President Kennedy was sworn into office in early 1961 he continued this project without substantially questioning it. When the Bay of Pigs invasion blew up in Kennedy’s face, Bissell was discredited. However, substantial misunderstandings remain about Bissell’s fall from power. Although many historians have claimed that Bissell was eventually kicked out of the CIA by Kennedy due to the Bay of Pigs, few have explained why it took nearly a year for this to occur. Cargill Hall has found evidence that Bissell’s dismissal was not so much because Bissell had angered Kennedy as because he angered two senior intelligence advisors—Din Land and James Killian, who had served on the TCP and later on PSAC and even later on an intelligence advisory board. Bissell’s sin, Land and Killian believed, was in using the U-2 to support the Bay of Pigs invasion. Land and Killian believed that the CIA’s technical intelligence systems were its greatest assets and should not be placed at risk over dubious plots like the Bay of Pigs. They lost confidence in him and he was forced out of the CIA, later running the Institute for Defense Analysis.

These new documents help shed light on several previous documents. Bissell was not exposed to space issues when the scientific satellite program was approved, he already knew about them. His interest in the program, and later CIA monetary support for it, stemmed from the fact that he had initiated it. Bissell is now long gone, but it is safe to conclude that these documents represent his active involvement in this subject right from the beginning. Rather than a passive observer, he was a deeply knowledgeable player who set the policy in motion.

Historical revisionism

The new documents demonstrate that American space policy (or at least a significant aspect of it) originated in the CIA, not with a group of civilian scientific advisors. They also indicate that Richard Bissell was not merely the bureaucrat who ran the U-2 and Corona programs at CIA, but a primary driver behind CIA involvement in space programs. However, to date, the evidence indicates that President Eisenhower’s early 1958 decision to place the CIA—and Bissell—in charge of the Corona reconnaissance satellite was due to the success of the U-2 and not any active lobbying by the CIA. In fact, the idea of CIA involvement apparently originated with Air Force satellite officials.

These new documents are significant to space historians for another reason besides their revision of our understanding of historical events. They demonstrate that the documentary record can still hold surprises. Documents still tucked away in classified archives can answer questions that we have not even asked. We have learned once again that documents can emerge even from the early days of the American space program that shed new light on existing historical interpretations. Who knows what further surprises may lurk in classified archives?


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